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October 17, 2003

CGNews #57

An occasional newsletter about Covenant Group Ministry read by 772 forward-looking Unitarian Universalists.



(Please note: In the last CGNews, we used an incorrect first name in identifying one of the participants. Correct: Henry Tichnor. Our apologies, Henry.)


How do we keep Covenant Groups integrated with instead of isolated from the life of the church? How do we integrate the positive feeling generated by Covenant Groups into the life of the church? These were questions asked and addressed by the Rev. Michael McGee, CCV Co-President and Lead Team Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA.

"We have a year-long theme for worship services and Covenant Groups," McGee said. "Covenant Groups use sermons on the theme as a basis for discussion and the religious education chapel services use the same themes. This way there are common topics for youngest to oldest."

Organizing and taking part in service projects for the community or the church each year is an expectation of Covenant Groups in the Arlington church. McGee says, "This helps groups to bond and keeps them from being overly insulated by giving them a purpose beyond themselves. Many groups have chosen to do their projects in the church, which has helped them to feel a deeper attachment and to become more knowledgeable about church life."

He also said, "I consider one of the primary purposes of Small Group Ministry to be leadership training. I draw more and more for leadership in the church from our covenant group leaders who have been trained in facilitating a healthy process that values and affirms all participants. I am finding that group participants also make more productive church members who are more likely to be involved in other church programs, bringing with them the Small Group Ministry philosophy."

An annual potluck for all covenant group participants helps people be more aware that our Small Group Ministry is a major part of the congregation's life.

RESPONSES to McGee's remarks included these:

Laura Schlatter: Service projects are good for the group and good for the congregation (for example putting together toiletry kits for women released from prison).

Renee Silver, Shelter Rock: Integration occurs during check-in when people make reference to sermon. Participation in projects has not been too successful. Most covenant group participants are very active in the congregation and are serving in many other ways.

Jill McAllister, minister, Kalamazoo, MI: Religious education teachers are forming Covenant Groups, meeting around curriculum in response to content, asking "what do I know that I can share?"

Laura Schlatter: We asked Covenant Groups if they were willing to use one session for a program collecting stories about the church. Many were willing to serve the church in that way and scheduled an extra session.

Calvin Dame: We used Covenant Groups once for mission writing process. The purpose of the groups is spiritual nurture, and we head off people asking Covenant Groups to do tasks such as the annual canvass. One of the functions of the Small Group Ministry steering committee is to protect the groups. Don't use the groups for "organizational" purposes.

Peter Bowden: Groups are for spiritual issues and spiritual reflection, not the politics of the church agenda.

Art Silver, Shelter Rock: Group members are looking for answers to questions. Don't use Covenant Groups for other purposes. Mutual sharing is meaningful. Don't bring in problems of the congregation at large.

Jennifer Nichols Payne, Southwest District Religious Education Consultant: Covenant Groups are a tool for growth, integrating people into the congregation. One way is to always leave an open seat. Is a group closed by bonding, or do we invite people in?

Henry Tichnor: As a project, one group sponsored a dinner for all Covenant Group members to celebrate the year. Every person took a minute to describe who they are. They compared their groups in different ways. This event fostered integration among the Covenant Groups.

Calvin Dame: You can trust that anything important in the life of the church is going to be processed.


The Rev. Calvin Dame, CCV Advisor and minister of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Augusta, ME, began by saying, "If we can move people into Covenant Groups, we can keep them."

He cited an Alban Institute view that there is a describable process of joining a church:

  1. Step across the threshold.
  2. Get kids into accessible religious education; attend worship service.
  3. Within six weeks know people beyond coffee hour.
  4. Have interaction with minister (minister looks them in the eye and sees them)
  5. Decision: Is there consonance in this church between what is preached from the pulpit and what happens in the fellowship hall?

Two out of ten visitors were staying long enough to become part of the Augusta church and membership had plateaued at 165 members when the church adopted Small Group Ministry with a goal of keeping three of ten visitors.

"The congregation committed itself to growth. The goal was to have more Unitarian Universalists in Augusta. There was a commitment to change paradigm to "We are a Small Group Ministry church," Dame said, adding: "Groups are accessible. Sunday welcome by lay leaders includes invitation to Covenant Groups. Every newsletter has something about Covenant Groups. Half of church members belong to Covenant Groups. It is the job of the group to integrate new members."

Angela Merkert, Congregational Services Director, Central Midwest District, had several questions: How many congregations are moving with the principle of breaking off new groups? Many are not dividing. Does this stymie the process of growth?

Dame's answer: Groups do not want to split. If we have five people and a facilitator we start a group. A group grows up to nine. If a church is committed to growth, it takes a different way of thinking about the church.

Julia Rodriquez observed that two San Jose groups have split so far.

RESPONSES to Dame's remarks included these:

Renee Silver, Shelter Rock: One of a group's covenants is to divide. We divided up a group of 16. They divided themselves, and half went with each leader.

Doug Kraft, Sacramento: With 10 or 11 groups, the facilitators group divided and two other groups divided. Dividing is part of the covenant, part of the program.

McGee: We hold New UU sessions three times per year, and try to start a new Covenant Group from each New UU group.

Doug Kraft: Facilitators are chosen and trained. The first group was trained for six months; after that only those who have been in groups can be facilitators.

Michael McGee: We hold a half-day training in the fall. Co-facilitators start new groups.

Tera Little: In coffee hour people don't talk to each other. What about intentional hospitality training?

Calvin Dame: If you want to belong to a friendly church you have to be friendly. This is an ongoing role.

Jennifer Brower, Shelter Rock: Splitting can be talked about in positive ways: "growing," "birthing." Growth is in numbers and in depth of connection and commitment.

Peter Bowden: We're asking people to let us cut their community in half. At Willow Creek they seduce people into two groups. The facilitator chooses an apprentice; the facilitator and apprentice each take five people to take care of and shepherd like a "cruise director." Group starts to cluster into two groups.

In Providence three young adult groups grew out of one.


McGee closed the session with a statement about vision:

  • Our vision for CCV, for the Center for Community Values, is that we will support and spread the powerful and empowering structure of Small Group Ministry. We will accomplish this mission so that individuals will embrace a renewed spirit of community; awaken to a deeper spiritual life; and be moved to a genuine compassion to serve others.
  • Second, we will help churches to build successful Small Group Ministry so that congregations will become: more caring communities of people who minister to each other and build healthy congregations; spiritual communities of people who seek to move into deeper dimensions of being; compassionate communities, seeking to heal and give hope to the world.
  • Third, we will help build a vast, planetary network of Small Group Ministry so that the world will be transformed by people who: experience the universal bond of community; are spiritually empowered to live out their highest values and deepest beliefs; work for systemic change to alleviate inequity and oppression.

This is our vision, this is our hope, and this is our expectation.

The next major CCV event will be in April. A weekend entitled "Spiritual Growth Through Small Group Ministry" will include presentations, workshops, and events at the heart of Covenant Group work in our congregations and beyond. Dates: April 2 and 3, 2004. Location: the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA.

This Friday-evening, all-day-Saturday event for laypersons and ministers from over the continent will provide theoretical and practical guidance and training for both beginners and experienced practitioners of Small Group Ministry as a spiritual practice.

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Archived back issues and a sign-up link are available at our newly redesigned Southwest District web site: Look for the "Newsletters" section.

-- Bob Hill

The Rev. Robert. L. Hill,
District Executive, SW District, UUA,
405 701-2917